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The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism

by James Geary

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The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism
Aphorisms have been around for thousands of years. Predating the written word, they allowed regular folk to carry around accumulated wisdom in their heads. As Erasmus put it, "An idea launched like a javelin in proverbial form strikes with sharper point on the hearer's mind and leaves implanted barbs for meditation." So it is with Geary's The World in a Phrase, which seems to be just the right length to introduce the discerning reader to the aphorism in its many incarnations.

Geary offers five rules for an aphorism. 1) It must be brief. 2) It must be definitive. 3) It must be personal. 4) It must have a twist. 5) It must be philosophical. His examination of aphorisms fits this model to a T.
This is a good bathroom read, and I mean that in an entirely positive manner. It can be read in short bursts or at a longer, more contemplative session. It is sectioned in - dare I say? - an aphoristic manner which lends itself to starts and stops. Or, as Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Its brevity is both its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. Because it is short, so much had to be left out. Because it is short, it is all the more pithy. To paraphrase an apology by Mark Twain: I'm sorry this letter is so long, but I did not have time to make it shorter. Geary has clearly taken the time to make this brief history, brief.

Chapters discuss the ancient sages (Buddha, Confucius), Greeks and Romans (Diogenes, Epictetus), Americans (Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce), more modern (Dr. Seuss, Dorothy Parker), and some not commonly known (Antonio Porchia, Stanislaw Jerzy Lee), although we know what they said. It was Lee, whose name I did not know, who wrote, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."
Each chapter contains an introduction to the subject under discussion followed by vignettes of 3-4 aphorists, their reasons for writing, and brief samples of their work in context. Chapter Eight, "In the Beginning Was the Word," illustrates how this format works. It opens with a discussion of the aphorism today, noting that Samuel Johnson said that eventually we would all write "aphoristically." Consider how we often write today: email, text messaging, blogs, emoticons. These require little to no preparation and, all too often for the grammarians among us, usually eschew the finer points of grammar, including spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Light verse, Geary says, "gives off an aphorist illumination; it's bright and playful but also scorching." And while it may be vacuous at first glance, a deeper, more rewarding heft arises on further reflection. Geary's exemplars of light verse include Alexander Pope ("Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.") and William Blake. The English mystic lived apart from the world. His devoted wife famously said, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise." Perhaps that is why Blake and his wife often sat naked in their garden reading Milton's Paradise Lost.
Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker are an odd pairing. Geary draws cogent parallels, noting that as Dickinson retreated to her attic, Parker attempted to "retreat" from life itself with numerous suicide attempts. Geary's brief discussion of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seems just right. The books are scary, often pitting a lone child against a dangerous world in which parents are not very helpful. But, the text always emphasizes that the child has control because, "You can steer yourself/Any direction you choose."

I found this book particularly appealing as I have collected quotes and aphorisms for years. The final paragraph below includes three of those I have discovered over the years. I started the same way Geary did, reading "Quotable Quotes" in the Reader's Digest as a kid. I still do.

James Geary lives in London (Samuel Johnson: The man who is tired of London is tired of life.) with his wife (W. W. Baring-Gould: Dimidium Animae Meae [Half My Soul] Inscription carved on his wife's [Grace] tombstone after 48 years of marriage) and three children (Norm Rice: We have to see all children as our children.) Author of the popular science book, The Body Electric, he is deputy editor of Time Magazine Europe.
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